I knew the workshop was going to be amazing when I got a call from Jon Bauer last Monday, asking me a bit about my writing and what I felt was getting in my way. How's that for engaging with your class? It was so out of the blue that I could barely come up with anything coherent, so I told him it was my core plot. Having now done the class, I imagine he might have rolled his eyes at that, because it wasn't a great off-the-cuff answer. What I really meant was, my inability to move past the stage of worrying about the core plot. What's the story about? What am I trying to say? What does it all mean? I worry and worry, and when I worry, it's not really about that plot. It's about what happens if I get it wrong, again.
Will all this work have been for nothing? Will I have to rewrite another six times before I get it right? Does it mean I'll never make it as a writer?
Here are a couple of things that instantly made me feel better.
First, Jon told us that he redrafted his first novel, Rocks in the Belly, no less than 200 times before it was publication-ready. All of a sudden I feel a little lacking in the endless rewrite department. This is something I've never felt before. It's good.
Second, he gave us his opinion that "writer" is not a valid noun in this circumstance. You are not a writer. As long as you are doing the work, you are writing. It's the verb that matters.
And if you're not writing and you want to be, then the only thing standing in your way is you.
What kind of roadblocks come into our path? The list, thrown out by the audience of writers, was long, and included the following kinds of things:
Self-criticism- Time- Validity- Ability- Ego- Prioritising- Habits- Confidence- Owning the title- Space- Criticism- Lack of training- Perfectionism- Too many ideas- Too few ideas- Clarity and focus- Procrastination- Friends and family- Excuses- Avoidance- Internet- Never finishing anything- Career and money- The need to eat and sleep- Research
All of it, though, boils down to just one thing:
And it's not fear of others that holds us up. It's fear of our own self-criticism. Even if we fear that others will say nasty things about our work, we fear it because of the internal backlash that comes of it.
We did one of the most fascinating exercises ever to demonstrate this. I can't replicate it for you, but I can describe how it felt, and it was utterly intriguing.
First, we had to write a biography of ourselves as a writer. Just a quick, ten minute exercise. Nobody else was going to see it- this was something we'd been promised before the course and during the class- so we were free to go off on whatever flights of fancy we wanted, imagining ourselves at the end of our writing lives, and looking back over what went well and what didn't.
Ten minutes later, and I had 800 extremely flighty words of drivel.
And then we were told we actually all had to read it out loud. Ha! Oh man. It felt like being back in high school for a second or two, but it wasn't so bad. We'd all written the same thing- a dorky account of our hopes and dreams as a writer, and no question everyone else would understand that it was pretty average. We buddied up and read aloud to each other, and I survived without dying of embarrassment over passages like the following:
Life and writing became a twin rollercoaster, roaring up and down, together and apart, rushing her through a field of emotions more varied than she had ever known. The writing world became tangled up inside her so much that she could never let it go. Time away from it became guilty time. Every moment she didn’t move forward, every time she moved backward, every time she didn’t get it just right, felt like a blow to her spirit that became increasingly hard to bear.
(See my humility shining through here? I really am unafraid to share anything- which may be a problem in itself, as I shall discuss a little further down).
So, all good. The next exercise was to take a line we loved from our original biography, and use that to start a story- except we had to write as badly as we possibly could. We get so worked up about doing it all right that it's nigh on impossible to force bad writing out- ironic that we so often criticise ourselves, thinking we've done just that.
I started mine with my favourite line. I went for cliches, telling-not-showing, non-existent plot, as-you-know-Bob, head-hopping, godawful dialogue, distant point of view- everything I could think of. It was truly awful. I was proud.
As one might have expected, we had to read this out to each other, too. The game was up by then, so we all knew it. No fear there, either, because we'd been so deliberate about writing badly that the whole thing was funny, and funny on purpose. The lady I was working with made me laugh out loud in at least six places.
Next stage- we had to look through this awfulness and find one good line. The point here was that no matter how bad it is, there's always something good you can take away. By this stage it was a bit of a challenge, because I'd mangled the living hell out of what I wrote, but heck. I'm up for a challenge.
And then came the real kicker- now we were asked to write something brilliant, starting with that line.
This is where the experiment became really interesting. The mood in the room changed significantly. Everyone had been laughing and chatting, and the next moment, bam. Silence. Seriousness. Lots of long faces, mine included. Panic set in. Brilliant? What? We got a promise that we wouldn't have to read this one, but this time with an additional proviso- as long as we could explain why we didn't want to.
So, to writing, and everything about the process was different. The first two times, I just wrote. I had this lunatic idea about a girl's grandmother stealing her boyfriend, and it seemed suitably awful for a piece of work that was meant to be bad. But suddenly I was supposed to turn it into something good, and oh, the pressure! The pain! Every single word had to earn its place on the page. Every single idea was judged. Nope, not good enough. Nope, that wouldn't hold people's interest. Nope, that's ridiculous. People will think I'm an idiot. Not clever enough. Too embarrassing. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The first two times, I wrote around 800 words. The third time I only got 400. I deleted a chunk out of the middle of it and started again halfway through. It was a bit torturous. I may have lost a couple of chunks of hair.
What a difference. Writing as if nobody was going to read it, writing as if it didn't matter whether it was brilliant or terrible as long as it was fun to do- that was enjoyable. Worrying about the rest was no good at all.
And yet that's how I and so many others write all the time. We pick our words against a backdrop of judgement that other people have yet to lay down. We criticise ourselves before we even get anywhere.
Interesting point here: what do we compare ourselves with when we look at our work and think it's not good enough? Invariably, we're thinking about published fiction we've read. But that published fiction exists at the other end of a spectrum of editing that our first drafts can't even hope to emulate. That work has been polished and repolished by the author, over and over again, then by a slew of editors before it gets to the printed page. Yet here we are, holding our own brand new work up against that, complaining that it doesn't cut the mustard.
How unreasonable are we? Totally!
So, here's the down-low on what to do. It comes down to the fact that all those obstacles just exist. It's up to you to keep writing anyway, in spite of them.
To keep improving, Jon suggests there are only three things you need to do:
- Write, and keep working on getting better at it.
- Share it with others, and listen to advice.
- Read, lots.
Write because you love it, and don't think about anyone else. Don't try to get it perfect. Just do it for the enjoyment of the process, and of knowing that eventually, with a lot of hard work, you'll have something complete and even good. You need to let the creativity flow in the first draft, and then you can bring a bit of reason and logic to bear in the editing stages.
Jon also quoted Susan Sontag, who said, "writing feels like following and leading, both, and at the same time." (In America, 2000)- sometimes we need to think about what we're doing and decide where it has to go; sometimes we just have to feel it.
To finish, I'll leave you with one of my favourite comments from the workshop yesterday, and that was this- humans are uncannily able to sense truth in each other. Therefore if you write about something you care about, something you're passionate about and have an authentic connection to, the audience will feel it. Try to write like that and you'll have something beautiful and memorable, and you'll make a true connection with your readers.